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Curtain Comes Down On India’s Marathon Election

Voters line up to cast their votes outside a polling station during the first phase of general election in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal on April 11.
Voters line up to cast their votes outside a polling station during the first phase of general election in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal on April 11.

Tens of thousands of voters in eight states lined up at polling stations to cast ballots in the final round of voting that brings India’s marathon 39-day election to a close.

Out of the 59 parliamentary seats up for grabs on May 19, the most high profile contest is taking place in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in northern Uttar Pradesh.

While his victory in the city of temples is widely seen as a forgone conclusion, the outcome for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is seeking a second term in office, is not quite as certain.

Aligned against the BJP are the main opposition Congress Party, fighting for political revival under its leader Rahul Gandhi, and an array of powerful regional parties.

After a hotly contested campaign, political analysts said the BJP remains the front-runner. But whether it crosses the half way mark will depend on how the party fares in Hindi heartland states like Uttar Pradesh, a key electoral prize that handed the BJP 71 out of 80 seats in 2014 helping it win a sweeping victory.

Intense Electoral Battle

Polling was held for 13 of those seats on May 19. The state of 200 million people, which sends the most lawmakers to parliament, symbolizes the intense electoral battle being waged by opposition parties to oust the BJP. Putting aside their deep differences, two regional caste-based parties that command large support bases have allied to give the BJP a much tougher fight than in 2014.

Expecting losses in Uttar Pradesh and in bastions such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan where it lost local elections in December, the party is eyeing gains in other states such as West Bengal.

Clashes between rival political workers of the BJP and a local party, the Trinamool Congress, that dominates West Bengal, marred the campaign this week and pointed to the intense campaign waged by Hindu nationalists to make inroads in the state.

Modi Confident; Party Firms Alliances

After the campaign wrapped up, Prime Minister Modi exuded confidence.

“I believe this is the first time in a long time that a majority government is winning a second term with a majority,” he told reporters “It’s a big thing.”

The BJP has firmed up alliances with regional parties in case the majority mark eludes it.

On the other hand, Modi’s opponents, the main opposition Congress party along with regional parties, are also hoping to join in an alliance to challenge the BJP if it falls short of that majority. Several parties have held discussions in recent days on forming what some analysts have called an “anti-Modi” front if the numbers stack up in their favor.

“The animosity towards the BJP is so high among a large number of political parties that they would be willing to sink their differences to form an alternative government,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, an independent political analyst.

Referendum on Modi, Nationalism

Sunday’s vote wraps up an unusually vitriolic campaign that turned into a virtual referendum on Modi.

Adopting a strong nationalist pitch, Modi campaigned on his image as a tough and decisive leader best suited to rule India and tackle archrival Pakistan, with which it was engaged in air skirmishes that raised fears of a war in February.

“He became the only issue. This is the recurring theme, that he alone is protector of India. That is what came across very strongly,” says Mukhopadhyay. “In this campaign the Hindutva agenda (Hindu nationalism) was at the forefront, the deliveries of the government were not the primary issues.”

At election rallies, his opponents accused him of stirring up strident nationalism to skirt bread and butter issues such as unemployment and growing rural distress that are hurting millions. Accusing him of divisive politics during his five-year rule and pointing to rising attacks against minorities, they said the BJP is destroying the idea of a secular nation.

Some indication of which way India is headed will come on the evening of May 19 when exit polls are released, though in the past they have proved to be inaccurate because of the scale and complexity of India’s marathon election that involves 900 million eligible voters. Vote counting will be done on May 23.

The world’s biggest election was held in seven stages this year. Voting so far has largely been peaceful barring the sporadic violence in the state of West Bengal.

-- Voice of America